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Album Reviews

A Pianist With New Ideas and the Arranging Skills to Match

April 28, 2002|HOWARD REICH



"Leaving Home"


The world of jazz does not lack for fine emerging pianists, but Berkman stands apart from the pack, not only for the intelligence of his playing, but also for his direction of an unusually effective sextet. In his third recording for Palmetto, Berkman presides over elegant, evocative arrangements that are performed with control and craft. The sheer ingenuity of the reed writing on a track titled "Creepy," the sustained elegiac mood of "Forever Astor" and the intricate counterpoint on "Unchained Harmony" are typical of an album that brings new ideas to every track. As pianist, Berkman doesn't waste a note, focusing instead on unusual voicings, idiosyncratic chord structures and a telling, deep-into-the-keys approach. As bandleader, he has crafted nearly ideal expressive vehicles for tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek, alto saxophonist Dick Oatts and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome. With a first-rate rhythm section of bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Brian Blade, this ensemble enhances the impact of already strong compositions.



"Strayhorn and Standards:

You Go to My Head"


The full measure of composer Billy Strayhorn's genius has yet to be taken, but this radiant recording can only deepen one's appreciation for his gifts. Surveying Strayhorn orchestrations of standard tunes, the Dutch Jazz Orchestra unfurls one revelatory reading after another, from the shimmering horns of "Autumn in New York" to the sumptuous colors of "Where or When" (with Marjorie Barnes' exquisitely tasteful vocals). Exactly how Strayhorn attained such ethereal, translucent orchestral effects in "The Man I Love" or conveyed such profound blues expression in "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance" will be debated for a long time. Yet perhaps it's sufficient simply to savor his achievements, as in the extraordinary sensuality on "You Go to My Head" and the glistening instrumental details on "I'll Buy That Dream." All of these tunes are idiomatically performed by the Dutch Jazz Orchestra, which, under the alert direction of Jerry Van Rooijen, is among the most accomplished large jazz ensembles.





Naftule's Dream may be the only ensemble on the planet that merges jazz, blues, klezmer, classical, avant-garde and a hint of heavy metal--and does so seamlessly. Granted, only the most adventurous ears will respond to its fearless brand of genre-bending. But brave listeners will find it difficult to resist the sonic joyride of "Back in the Sewer," a track that opens as a free-form improvisation and segues into Old World klezmer before erupting into ferocious, blues-inspired electric guitar blasts. Or consider the title track, a haunting lament in which clarinetist Glenn Dickson spins exquisite, minor-key arabesques that underscore the enduring power of classic klezmer melody. On "Industrial Bulgar," the band turns vintage, dance rhythms inside out with surprising tempo shifts; and on two miniatures by Erik Satie, the musicians find the place where French lyricism, Eastern European harmony and jazz rhythm converge.





Jazz contrabassoonists never have been exactly in high demand, but that hasn't stopped Savedoff from releasing a thoroughly charming recording on which he defies the presumed limitations of the instrument. Bringing a touch of humor to practically every track, he swings buoyantly on a whimsical merger of Leonard Bernstein's waltz "I Feel Pretty" and James Brown's famous shout "I Feel Good" to come up with "I Feel Pretty Good." The idea may sound farfetched, but the combination of Kim Scharnberg's witty arrangement and Savedoff's double-reed virtuosity produces a carefree music that can't help but make the listener smile. Great music-making doesn't always have to be deadly serious, a point that Savedoff makes with nearly every joyous phrase he plays.


Howard Reich is jazz critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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